A Fearful Symmetry

– A review of Penhaligon’s ‘Amaranthine’

A Bengal tiger is pacing on my desk as I type this, eyeing me with a bit of feline disdain and a slight twitch of tail. Hairy Krishna and Janice Divacat are convinced this tiger is, as they see it, the cat’s meow. I caught Krishna, the more adventurous of the two, getting so close he could sniff and breathe in this strange and wondrous creature, only to jump away with a sudden sneeze and a shake of his head. Not even he could quite grasp the concept of this …entity. Janice, on the other hand, just sat herself down and gazed at it adoringly.

If Hairy Krishna has issues, then who am I to argue since I have them, too. I can’t quite wrap my mind around it either, and I asked for it, after all.

The tiger is Amaranthine by Penhaligon’s, and while I have often been unsettled and occasionally knocked sideways by a perfume, rarely have I been quite so unnerved and unsettled as I am over this one. So alien in the best sense of the word to so many of my perfume sensibilities and so compelling that no matter how hard I try, I can’t stay away. In the past two days, I’ve walked by my desk and that lovely Penhaligon’s tissue paper, and right as I’m about to go on to do something else, that tiger twitches its tail and stops me in my tracks. I. Just. Have. To. Sniff. Again.

This can’t be good. Yet it is. Sinfully good!

Amaranthine is very much a jungle beast, a tropical tiger, burning bright through the first heady rush of banana tree leaf, green tea, coriander oil and cardamom. It is…odd, the same way a note like davana can be odd for being so compelling, with a definite chai vibe and a milky cardamom. So?

What if I told you that this is a Bertrand Duchaufour creation, and we all know M. Duchaufour likes to have a few aces up his devious sleeve. When I get comfortable with Amaranthine, when I’m about to be lulled into a sweet chai-with-cardamom rush, as smooth and luminous as the gold border on a silk sari, this tiger chooses to show its teeth, and before you know what hits you, you are hoist on a stunning petard of heady blooms, a tropical sword that teeters on the brink of too-much, too-heady, too…hot to handle.

This is where that tiger twitches its tail and shows its claws, when it gets dirty and borderline over-ripe and definitely sexy. Nothing in this humid, flower sword says ‘come-hither’ so much as it says ‘let-me-devour-you’, and I road-tested this on a susceptible quarry, solely in the interests of scientific research, you understand.

Tiger, tiger, burning, bright. I was reminded of a painting by one of my favorite illustrators called ‘The Transformation of Angarred’, of a woman who sees her reflection in a pool, and she’s already half-leopard.

That would be Amaranthine. Strange, haunting, compelling, bordering on dirty, teetering on too much, but it’s not over until the tiger growls, although this tiger never does. Instead, it lies down, sated, and begins to lick its paws, and – who knew? – purr. You can tell me that tigers don’t purr. I won’t believe you, because that’s exactly what Amaranthine does…dries down to a sweet, cuddly, musky, creamy sandalwood that has, to paraphrase Christopher Marlowe, all its pleasures proved and all its dangers braved and all its fearful symmetry is simply a trick of the light, a glimpse of danger and sensual anticipation. Even so, it’s still a pussycat underneath.

The amaranth flower, with its vibrant purple-red hue, was once described by Milton in ‘Paradise Lost’:

“Immortal amaranth, a flower which once
In paradise, fast by the tree of life,
Began to bloom; but soon for man’s offence
To heaven removed, where first it grew, there grows…”

If ever I could imagine such a flower, blooming by the tree of life, this would be it. Just make sure this tiger growls first, or you will never hear it purr…

Notes according to Penhaligon’s:
Top notes: Green tea, white freesia, banana tree leaf, coriander seed oil, cardamom absolute
Heart notes: Rose, carnation, clove oil, orange blossom, ylang ylang, Egyptian jasmine absolute
Base notes: Musk, vanilla, sandalwood, condensed milk, tonka bean

Amaranthine is available from the Penhaligon’s website and also from First in Fragrance.

Disclosure: Sample graciously provided by Nicky of Penhaligon’s Ltd. for review, and although she was kind enough to send me two samples, one of them was quickly purloined by a now former colleague..;-)

Painting: ‘The Transformation of Angarred’, by Kinuko Y. Craft

Devilscent – Part Four

– An update from the Producer and his apprentice…

No kidding, there I was, looking like death warmed up and microwaved four times too many, in my writing uniform of hair up in a plastic clip, bare scrubbed face, black yoga pants and a now-vintage black t-shirt that proclaimed on the back in orange letters: “Only the dead know Brooklyn.” Everything went so well with the Rouge Noir on my toes. The house was quiet, Spider-Man Jr. asleep and even the cats were crashed on the window sill, no doubt gathering strength for their usual 3 AM marital spat.

My desk was an absolute mess of stenographer’s pad, tea cup (it being Tuesday and all), and my iPod playing something that was, in fact, from Brooklyn. (See the t-shirt.)I also had an incredible collection of tiny extrait strength vials of the most amazing essences on Planet Earth. Doc Elly had indeed sent me a new package, and did she ever go to town with this one! Patchouli, cinnamon leaf, benzoin, opoponax, vetiver from Haiti and Sri Lanka, black and white vanilla and, and, and…something so utterly unearthly and vegetal at the same time, not even Ms. Verbosity 2011 could find the words to describe it. My New Oxford Thesaurus couldn’t find the words. When Oxford gives up, it’s …unearthly. Otherworldly.

I was…happy. This was like playing with sixty-four Crayola crayons, but for a ‘fumehead. Oh, the possibilities! Only this time, I was doing the responsible thing. I wrote down every addition onto my watercolor paper in order and approximate proportion and marveled yet again how Doc Elly did it. (Artist grade watercolor paper holds scent incredibly well. I recommend Arches and Fabriano)

This time, he really freaked me out. No warning, and that was his usual style, but this time, he tickled the back of my neck and made my hackles rise. Next thing I knew, he was on his usual chair up against the wall, one eyebrow cocked mockingly. Looking not like I usually saw him, which was that secret face no one knew, but like his current favorite disguise sans aviator shades.

“Having fun yet, baby?”

I plotzed all over my keyboard. My earbuds dropped out on their own volition. “Oh, hell! Couldn’t you at least send me a text message first?” I was frantically smoothing strands of hair out of my face, checking my phone for the date. May 24th. The Devil. Had to be.

I hated when he did that.

“No. Where’s the fun of that? I like catching you by surprise.” He cackled.

“Never.” If the Devil’s sausage casing came from a state that liked to think it invented sarcasm as an art form, then I could be sarcastic, too.

“What have you got on that blotter?” he pointed to the paper square on my desk.

“Round four, I think. Twelve different things including that surprise.” I waved it under his nose.

His nostrils flared. “Smells like…hmmm…the world’s cleanest orgy? The Ringling Bros’ Bacchanal? No elephants allowed today, and we charge extra for admitting tigers on Tuesdays.”

I laughed. “Not quite the effect I was looking for.”

“Nope.” He reached out and began opening vials at incredible speed. In no time at all, six different things were dripped onto blotter number two. He reached for the first box, stuffed with labdanum, frankincense and other divinities. Another sniff. A drop of choya loban, which is essence of burnt Boswellia. He reached for that unearthly thing again. “This…” he waved the tiny vial in his fingers, “blows my mind, if not my nose.”

I sipped my tea, lukewarm by now. “Mine, too. I like the name, and I like the idea of using it. I’ve never seen that anywhere.”

“Nope. Here…” he passed it beneath my nose. “What do you think?”

I sniffed. It was very different from the first blotter and a long way away from the bass line of our last round. It was very heady, very dark, and somehow both otherworldly and earthy at the same time. The frankincense came through loud and clear, and the labdanum had been tamed. It was that…thing, that amazing, incredible thing. Green and bitter, smoky and earthy, and yet like nothing else I had ever encountered.

When I closed my eyes and sniffed, I could almost hear a faraway voice singing down a long, echoing corridor, a story about a woman who never sold her soul to the Devil, but he took it all the same…

“Needs more sex.” The Devil reached for another vial. Before I could regret it, I blurted “Don’t we all?”

“Hush. Has anyone told you you’re crazy?” He shook his head and narrowed his eyes at the jumble of vials. He found what he was looking for and added some. Total concentration.

“Only my Rice Krispies this morning. And the voices in my head,” I sassed back.

He dropped the vial with a clatter onto my desk, tipped his chair back against the wall and laughed. “It’s called writer’s disease, baby. Or congenital insanity, I’m not sure which!”

“Try it now.” He waved blotter number two under my nose. “Close your eyes, listen with your nose. Can you hear it? That slow, bass drum 4/4, and here comes the bass just above it, just a tritone…and now, a slow guitar, three chords, just slightly ominous…still the bass, still the drums…and an echo of a broken heart and a dream come true but all dreams have a price tag, don’t they…breathe it in, baby…”

I breathed it in. If I concentrated, I could still hear that faraway voice, the Devil took her soul all the same…

He broke the spell when he landed his chair back on all four legs. Blotter number one was sweeter, if no less gorgeous, but blotter number two was dangerous, unearthly, bitter, and very, very dark.

“We’ll try again in a day or so. Gotta go.” He stood up, smoothed back a few errant strands of hair that escaped my clip. “Write about it.” He whispered in my ear. “You know how. Find an editor for your book. You need one badly. Oh, and one more thing.”

I tore my proboscis away from the blotter and looked up. Damn it, it was so distracting when he looked like that. On a day I looked like microwaved death. It just wasn’t fair.

“Yes, Master?” I answered in my best Lurch impression.

He whispered again. “Cinderella is going to the ball. Check your email.” He turned around with that classic five-year-old grin. “I’ll send a pumpkin to collect you!”

With a laugh that hung in the air above my desk like the scents we had just made, he disappeared.

All that was left to do for the day was to write about it. So I did.

Image: *grim-inc at DeviantArt

Raspberry and Plums

– Perfume and the generation gap
Yesterday after work, I had a meet up with a female friend and mentor of mine, who takes a keen interest in perfume, this blog and yours truly, not necessarily in that order. To that end, I brought a bag packed with most of my sample and decant collection, which for reasons I have yet to fathom seems to be growing exponentially. All through the morning, a few of the other ladies, all of them in their twenties, eyed that bag and wondered at those boxes, until one of the girls finally summed up the courage to ask what was in them. It was our lunch break. I hauled them out…

Most of these lovelies know nothing of niche perfumes, and all of them have never known the heyday of broad-shouldered Perfume with a capital P. What they do know is that yours truly is the local Sillage Monster. They know I never wear the same thing two days in a row, they know I wear…a lot of it at any given time, and they know I sure as shinola don’t smell anything like their mothers…so their curiosity was killing them.

One girl – let’s call her Annie – opened up a box containing various Lutens, Amouage, my Atelier decant and the results of a sample spree at First in Fragrance. “I always wondered,” she said, “what it is about you and your taste in grandmother perfumes.”

Grandmother perfumes?” I asked. Having recently acquired a young and ardent lover, ‘grandma’ anything was the last thing on my mind.

“Yeah,” piped in let’s-call-her-Beatrice, “they’re, like, heavy and heady. We can smell you after you leave the room.” She grabbed my decant of Boxeuses, sniffed, and wrinkled her nose.

I nodded toward the gang of testosterone in the room. “I haven’t heard any complaints so far.” Two of those guys still had fond memories of the day I showed up in a cloud of Bandit. They had been happy to say good morning ever since. My male boss on the other hand, took me aside later that day and told me I really shouldn’t wear Bandit to work. It was too…distracting. Score one for Piguet!

“Well, they wouldn’t, would they?” sneered Annie. She was still miffed I had scored a lover who was seriously cute and just her type. “Phew…” this was her reaction to my beloved ‘Ubar’, “damn, this stuff is…awful.”

“Only because you think you’re supposed to smell like watered down raspberries-with-rose,” I said.

“I hate those,” Beatrice reached for my purse spray of Lutens’ Fleurs d’Oranger and inhaled. “Holy…cow. So that’s what that was.” She bravely sprayed a wrist. “Oooooh. Wow. Gotta say it, this is sexy.” She didn’t stop sniffing. Her eyes were shining. When the jasmine and tuberose began their little pas-de-deux with a flurry of nutmeg and ambrette, she stared at her wrist as if she couldn’t believe such marvels existed.

“Too much.” Annie shook her head. She opened up another box and hauled out a white bag emblazoned with the Etat Libre d’Orange logo and ‘Le parfum est mort – vive le parfum.”

It figured the first one she would pull out would be ‘Secretions Magnifiques’. “Look…this one has a…” she waved the little booklet around. Our table erupted. “Yes, it does.” I snatched it away from her. “Trust me, you really don’t want to open that one.” Luckily, there was plenty else to distract her. ‘Rossy de Palma,’ ‘Vraie Blonde’ and ‘Nombril Immense’ were quickly discarded. ‘Noël à Balcon’ found favor, and so did ‘Encens et Bubblegum’ and ‘Jasmin et Cigarettes’. “This, stated Annie with finality, “is more like it!” She dabbed a little on one wrist. “I like it more and more…How much is 100 euros again?”

Beatrice was feeling adventurous. I knew it was the ‘Fleurs d’Oranger’. ‘Like this’ was inhaled. Her eyes opened wider. She grabbed the little glossy black box and took off the rubber bands. “So this is the one you’re working on for your book…” She took off the lid. There was no need to sniff, because the bass line of the Devil’s scent wafted in all its potent extrait strength glory all around the table. One four-letter word escaped her. “That’s the general idea,” I said. “You mean…” Annie’s eyes were as big as saucers, “people will actually buy this stuff? Like, pay money for it? And…” her voice dropped to a whisper as she tried to grasp that idea, “Like…wear it, too?”

“Well, it’s not finished yet…this is just the foundation, so to say…or the first draft.”

Meanwhile, a sweetheart Sri Lankan we’ll call Cherry, inhaled deeply. “This…she stated with millenia of heady Hindu perfumed history dancing in her head, “is…good. Really, really, good.”

“Have I got something for you…” I opened up Doc Elly’s box and located ‘Siam Proun’. “Here, try this.” “Oh! Oh!”. Cherry was in the grip of some powerful emotion she didn’t quite have the words for in Danish. She muttered something in Tamil. “It smells like…love, and home, and everything beautiful! Like something Saraswati would wear!”

“You’re learning, sweetheart!” I gave her a hug. “Then you shall have it!” She already owned ‘Gujarat’. She had been a darling ever since. If I gave her Siam Proun, she might let me snag a few of her pistachios.

“Pooh….” Annie waved her hand. “Too…much, if you ask me.” She sniffed her jasmine and cigarette-infested wrist. “Where can I buy this? And how long until payday, anyway?”

Beatrice turned the decant of ‘Fleurs d’Oranger’ over and over in her hands. Every so often, she sniffed at her wrist. Then, she straightened her shoulders, tossed back her ponytail, and sprayed the other wrist. “No such thing as too much, if this is what it smells like!”

I almost regretted not bringing ‘Ambre Sultan’, but there were maybe five sprays left, and they were m-i-n-e.

“Well…” Annie gathered up the mess of Etat Libres and put them back in their bag. “That was…an education.”
“What I want to know…” Beatrice sniffed again. She’d trail that sillage for the rest of the day and love every millisecond. “Is how do you write about it?”

“Yeah!” echoed Annie and Cherry, “How do you? Write about it?”

I gathered up decants and purse sprays and sample bottles and put everything back in the bag. “Search me. I don’t know. I just open up a sample or a bottle and…let my nose do the talking!”

“I know how you scored that cutie…” grumbled Annie. She pointed an accusing finger at the bag. “It was one of those…grandma fumes!”

Not true, but I’d never tell…

Later, after a decadent chocolate cake and a lot of laughter, my mentor – we can call her Denise – and I settled down with the boxes.

Denise is a few years older than I, a lot more settled and yet – she has never lost that sense of fun and mischief, which is one reason we get along so well. We hit it off instantly, that cold February day we met, and we’ve hit it off in a big way ever since. I adore her for the way she can rearrange my mental furniture in new and more efficient settings, and for letting me be myself. Once the mentor part is out of the way, we park business where it belongs and get back to the important stuff – like friendship.

She told me of a recent visit to Strange Invisible Perfumes in Venice Beach, and then went through my sample boxes.

“You know…I went to Luckyscent’s Scentbar in West Hollywood, I went to Sephora, and I went to that store in Venice Beach, and I even blazed through duty-free in Los Angeles and Amsterdam, but it’s gotten to where I don’t dare to buy perfume these days unless you’re with me. You know…” her brown eyes danced across the table. “Because you know what real women like!”

“To smell womanly, you mean?”

“Yes, to be…unique, to feel special, to feel…just a bit better than yourself!” She inhaled Andy Tauer’s ‘Incense Extreme’. “I remember you wore this the day we met.”

“I did.” And frequently ever since.

She found ‘Fleurs d’Oranger’. “OMG…this should be banned.” She sprayed an elbow.

“You realize that once you start batting for Team Lutens and Sheldrake, it’s over,” I said. “You’ll never be the same again, you’ll be corrupted for life, it’s the road to perdition…”

“Good!” She let it settle and opened ‘Ubar’. “I can see why this made you cry. Wow, it’s stunning. Just…” she breathed in. “Stunning. I can see why mainstream is so incredibly boring after this.” Her face had the word ‘epiphany’ written large all over it.

“Well, I like a challenge, and a journey in the bottle,” I said.

She eyed my decant of ‘Boxeuses’ and opened it. “I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it.” She sprayed a wrist. “Are there laws against this anywhere? If there aren’t, there should be!”

“Only in Canada…and Detroit,” I said.

“I can’t get over how incredible this is!” She sniffed. And sniffed her elbow, where ‘Fleurs d’Oranger’ bloomed its siren song. “I can’t decide. They’re both so gorgeous…” She had a faraway look in her eyes. “Second opinion!” She jumped up and consulted her hunky husband in the other room. A few minutes later, she came back. “He said ‘Boxeuses’, so ‘Boxeuses’ it is!

Before I left, she had me write down the web address of Serge Lutens. Less than an hour later, I received a text message while standing in the checkout line at my local supermarket. “Just bought Boxeuses! Can’t wait! And I can’t thank you enough, either!”

A convert to niche, to Lutens, and to plummy, yummy leather. And a bevy of beauties who realized that maybe there was more to perfume than raspberry and watery rose. Jasmine and cigarettes, jasmine and tuberose, plummy, yummy leather and priapic artwork thrown in, too!

Not so bad for a humdrum Thursday…

A Homecoming Dream

A review of Etat Libre d’Orange’s ‘Tilda Swinton Like This’

Sometimes, you can encounter a combination of disparate elements that in theory seem so utterly wrong and alien, you wonder how it can ever work. Scallops in a vanilla-white wine sauce, dark chocolate and curry, lavender cupcakes – all the things that shouldn’t work yet somehow do, sometimes beautifully, sometimes not.

Then come the occasions when you wonder why no one thought of it before. When idea and execution come together in a flux so seamless, the result seems like some elegant, effortless sleight-of-hand, and the rabbit out of that hat has orange fur with gold-brown polka dots and will redefine the word ‘rabbit’ for all time to come in your own mind. One singular combination – but it still has long ears, a fluffy tail and eats the carrots in your garden.

Etat Libre d’Orange’s ‘Tilda Swinton – Like This’ is one such rabbit. When it was released last year, I read the reviews and thought to myself: Pumpkin perfume? Gingerbread? Pumpkin pie? R-e-a-l-l-y now…

Famous last words. Because on May 5th, ‘Like This’ won the Fragrance Foundation France’s award – the perfume world’s equivalent of an Oscar – for best specialty/niche fragrance, a distinction I personally think Etat Libre richly deserves for several reasons.

For one thing, this isn’t anything like a Demeter. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s not about the pumpkin at all, or even anything normally categorized as ‘gourmand’. It could be me, but I don’t get anything resembling ‘pumpkin pie’ in the least – and that’s a good thing.

Right away, I get a tangy, sharp zing of mandarin and ginger, an electric bolt of summer, heat and all things ‘happy’ to my nose, but that’s just the beginning, there’s this indescribable crème brûlée scent of almost-burnt sugar and within moments, an earthier ribbon of vetiver and what I suspect might be that ‘pumpkin accord’ weave their way into the picture. I can smell neroli, too, and rose, say the notes, but the neroli is dancing a joyful fandango on my skin and I never notice that. What I most definitely notice is immortelle creeping in to the limelight like some sentient vine, shooting sunshine-yellow blooms unfolding in fast-forward on my skin to sing the song immortelle sings so well.

The worst thing I can say about ‘Like This’ is that if you hate immortelle, this probably won’t change your mind. I thought I did. I thought that maple syrup+curry were vastly overrated, and I thought I would hate this, but if it’s the vetiver, the heliotrope, that pumpkin thang, or just my ever-expanding olfactory horizons, I don’t care and know less, since I have to sit down. I feel dizzy, dizzy in a way that happens more frequently these days, in the grip of some inarticulate emotion that boils down to…happy. Not ecstatic, not delirious, not my usual overexcited puppy-dog mode, but happy-content, happy-comforted, happy-peaceful, happy in a way that makes me want to laugh at nothing more and nothing less than the simple, incredible pleasure of being alive in my skin, in this moment, in this company. I applied liberally this morning, and these thirteen hours later, a hint of skin-but-better still remains.

‘Like This’ is …a dream of a homecoming, when you have sampled a taste of all the adventures this world has to offer, and it was…enough. It’s when open arms reach out to hold you and draw you inside to a fireside and a perfect cup of Darjeeling with two warm gingersnaps on the saucer, and you feel body and soul come completely together for the first time in a long time, because you’re…home.

It’s that perfect, contented moment, a fleeting flower frozen in amber for eternity, that you will love and cherish always.

It’s like saying goodbye to a lover on a Sunday morning, when he pulls you close and asks: “What will it be like, when I see you again?”

And you grab his shirt and pull his head down to yours and brush a taste of firelight and spice across his lips and you say:

“Like this.

Notes: Yellow mandarin, ginger, pumpkin accord, immortelle, Moroccan neroli. Grasse rose, vetiver, heliotrope, musk

I have never drained a sample vial so fast in my entire life. If that’s not love…

Disclosure: Sample generously provided by Anthony of NkdMan, who gave me an offer I couldn’t refuse!

Image: Fossil Mall

The Softest Sell

– when image is everything
At one important point in Quantum Demonology, one of the characters says “I can believe anything for at least five minutes, it’s all in the persuasion.”

So if you stop to think about it a little further, would you not agree with the statement that nowhere is that persuasion more emphatic than with …perfume? That art most ephemeral of all, fleeting as a spring wind, yet a perfume can engrave itself upon your memory and your emotions in such a visceral manner, it might as well be hewed in Carrara marble by Bernini to endure for eternity.

We buy, consume, wear perfume for so many reasons – to reflect our many and often disparate selves on any given day, to celebrate spring, summer, fall…or the first snow. We wear perfume to seduce and entice, or simply to seduce and entice ourselves into a newer, better self, however we choose to define it. We use perfume to define or emphasize a mood, a feeling, a certain emotion. As in…

“Today, you don’t want to mess with me. I am cool, confident and completely collected. Today, I wear Chanel no. 19.”


“Tonight, it’s you and me. The world stops at the door. Tonight, there are no…cell phones, no Twitter feeds, no Facebook status updates. Tonight, there is only now. So tonight, I shall wear Tabac Blond, for you alone…”

So by association, and by associating all the images conjured up in naming only two perfumes, two whole movie trailers play in the reader’s mind…Armani suit, well-behaved hair, an impeccable presentation of the ten most relevant facts a client needs to know to take the bait and pay the bills. Don Draper, eat my dust!

Or something black and slinky, something altogether different for an altogether different purpose…some time definitely after dark.

At least, that’s what yours truly tells herself in front of the perfume cabinet. Your mileage – or your perfumes – may vary.

But in choosing, buying, consuming perfume – whichever one you choose for whatever reason – you are buying into not just the juice, you are choosing, buying and wearing an entire aesthetic, as well. This was brought to my attention by some of the comments I received for my blog on Etat Libre d’Orange’s ‘Vraie Blonde’. Which got me thinking…and as we all know, that means trouble!

Behold, one of the glories of the twentieth century – Jacques Guerlain’s immortal ‘Mitsouko’, beloved, worshiped and adored by perfumistas and normal women alike since its creation in 1919. Because…it’s perfect. It is every bottled aspiration any woman and many men could ever hope to have, and – it’s Guerlain, who broke new ground in a world of ostensible soliflores with the still very modern ‘Jicky’ in 1887, and even then, they had been in business for over sixty years. Guerlain, to our jaded minds, wafts heritage, class, refined taste and a certain refined aesthetic native to France especially, where all aspects of life are sensual pleasures to be celebrated, explored and taken to entirely new heights. Buy a Guerlain perfume – almost any Guerlain – and you are buying an entire history in a bottle, all wrapped up in the heady aura of…Mitsouko, Shalimar …It is a compliment to your most excellent, discerning taste in that most excellent, ephemeral art form that is – perfume. In the unlikely if not implausible event anyone says it smells ‘weird’, please, just shoot that ignoramus on sight!

At the other end of that same super-sophisticated aesthetic spectrum, we have…the line of Serge Lutens. Whereas Guerlain has its nineteenth-century heritage to claim as its own, Serge Lutens as a perfume house has only existed since 2000, and yet, it would be fair to say that few other lines – and indeed few other perfume houses – have done so much to explore and even refine the singular and very personal aesthetic inclinations and preoccupations of M. Lutens and his perfumer Christopher Sheldrake. The brand, the concept, the very perfumes themselves are unique and uniquely intriguing, not least because this is not a mainstream brand, and these perfumes are nowhere near mainstream.

Yet the branding – of a super-luxurious, super-exclusive, inside secret of the cognoscenti fits the perfumes, even though many of them are challenging, shapeshifting, mercurial creatures who seem to take a life of their own on skin and bloom in ways we may or may not like. A Serge Lutens perfume can be difficult in a way no Guerlain can, can be downright obstinate and insistent and you can likewise insist that this…thing…on your skin is a horror story not even John Carpenter could cook up, until that one day, that one day you catch yourself thinking – as with Tubéreuse Criminelle pictured above…whoever could have guessed that gasoline and mentholated mothball could evolve into such peerless beauty? So you are hooked forever-and-a-day, and there is no cure, no panacea, no balm for that spot on your soul that only a Lutens could find and appease.

Meanwhile, we’re still in luxury territory, still within the safe and beautiful confines of sophistication and discernment and our own most excellent taste. There’s no disparity between the juice and the brand, nothing we need to outright reject, because it’s still…perfume. A necessary adornment and the only accessory that really matters, as Coco Chanel once said.

Perfumes came and went, perfume houses bloomed and died, all of them to the last bottle catering to our need for definition, our hunger for the extraordinary, the necessary, the hotly coveted…luxury, even if it were the only luxury we could afford, even if we would never wear or afford haute couture in our lives, we could aspire and breathe in that rarified air and for a moment believe ourselves to be…rare, exclusive sophisticates.

But times were changing, people’s perceptions of luxury and branding were changing – even luxury brands were – and are – becoming watered-down commonplaces, available to anyone with enough rubber credit and a bad case of the ‘screw-it-and-I’m-worth it’s. Other lines joined the fray in upping the ante to maintain that exclusivity, through price tag or limited distribution, all to better separate the plebes from the patricians, the cognoscenti from the clueless. Some of those lines merit their outrageous price tags, and some are just more…noisy hype in a world where everything is hyped as ‘luxury’, to the point where it can be hard to define what the word even means any longer.

Which was where that blog entry came in. Because in the comments, I came across several statements that quite simply stopped me in my tracks. It was a Japanese ‘satori’ moment, an ‘Aha!’ moment, when with a few select words, my entire perspective on perfume changed. Possibly forever.

In an Internet age, when everything new-ish is so five minutes ago, when chocolate, bath towels and even something so mundane as toilet paper can be marketed as ‘luxury’, along came …you guessed it…another perfume house, and this time, nothing ever would be quite the same again.

Enter the renegade perfume house of Etat Libre d’Orange, and pictured above, quite possibly the most universally reviled and deplored perfume ever created. No one who has ever experienced it can forget it, and many simply don’t have the stomach to try. It doesn’t even stop with the perfume itself. It’s the entire concept of the line. Because some of the comments stated quite unequivocally that the brand itself and its marketing concept was enough to reject the line entirely, and that was what stopped me cold.

Etat Libre chose a very different approach to marketing themselves as the Next New Kid On the Block. Instead of über-sophistication and exclusivity, they chose to sell themselves on shock value – and a certain adolescent – or tongue-in-cheek, if you prefer – image, and a definite salacious slant. With names such as ‘Putain de Palaces’ (Palace Slut), ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong (Baby I Don’t Swallow’) or even the infamous ‘Secretions Magnifiques’, they turned perfume marketing and branding entirely on its head, and even managed to raise quite a few hackles in the process by challenging all preconceptions as to what constitutes ‘perfume’ – that it must be beautiful, it must be luxurious, it must by definition be a continuation on an eternal theme – to smell good. And anything that smells…good must perforce be marketed like perfume has been marketed since the beginning of time – with the aesthetic we have come to associate with….perfume. Sacred, special, sophisticated, mirroring back to us our own…sanctity, uniqueness, sophistication.

Not so, if Etat Libre is anything to go by. They may have advertising copy Beavis and Butthead could have written (on a good day), their perfumes may have salacious names, and one of them may indeed be the bottled Texas Chainsaw Massacre in full Technicolor, 3-D and Smellavision, but all the same, they are doing quite well for themselves in spite of – or because of – that iconoclasm that dared to question our preconceptions of perfume and perfume marketing.

I have no problem with either personal choice and preference or iconoclasm – I actually gravitate toward it more often than not. If some would prefer to reject Etat Libre’s creations simply for their Beavis and Butthead aesthetic, well – it’s a free country, right? We’re inundated with choices every day. The old cliché – to each his or her own – is nowhere more true than in perfume. One woman’s Poison is another woman’s Obsession, etc.

Personally, I would never write off a new experience of any kind I might stand to learn something from. (If nothing else, I could always use it in a novel!) I would never reject an entire line on principle, because in my daily life, no one would ever know about my super-deluxe-exclusive-only-available-every-other-decade-limited-edition-and-distribution-vintage-in-18K gold-bottled…perfume. My surroundings would pass their judgment something along the lines of…good/bad/yuck/let-me-rip-off-your… etc. Which is fine by me.

What is very fine indeed by me is the occasional…huh-huh…Beavis..check-this-out-dude…reminder that sometimes, marketing can take itself too seriously, perfumes can certainly take themselves too seriously, and what we really need to do is just…chill out, laugh and let our hair down a little. There is a space and a headspace for our longing for the ephemeral dream that is perfume, for that flawless, shining moment of transcendent beauty that gives us such joy simply to exist, to live and to breathe! There is a place for our inner teenaged longing for irreverence and off-color, too, should we be that way inclined.

And above all, sometimes we need a reminder – that it’s only perfume, people! The softest sell of all!

Illustration for Le Galion’s ‘Snob’ by C. Maurel, 1957, belledepub.free.fr.
Vintage Guerlain Mitsouko, guerlainperfumebottles.webs.com
Limited edition Serge Lutens Tubéreuse Criminelle, megsmakeup.com
Etat Libre d’Orange Secretions Magnifiques, Etat Libre